History books and countless Hollywood movies tell us President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865 by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
Jumping from the second level of the Ford’s Theater to the stage and injuring a leg, Booth still managed to reach the alley where a horse was waiting. Aided along the way he was chased across Maryland to a Virginia barn where he was killed.
There is no doubt the renowned Shakespearean shot Lincoln and escaped from the theater. Chased down and surrounded at the barn, Booth was shot by a U.S. Army Sgt. Boston Corbett despite strict orders to “take him alive.” When the fugitive still refused to surrender the barn was set on fire.
The badly deposed body was returned to Washington, D.C. and several witnesses were called to identify it as Booth.
Here some question marks occur. No relatives or close friends were asked to do so. One that did see the corpse said it was Booth because he had initials JRB on his wrist. What could have appeared to be initials were on the body’s opposite wrist. A doctor stated it was not Booth because the body did not have a scar on the neck from a tumor he had once removed. The next day the doctor reversed his testimony and said it was Booth after all.
But was it?
Seven years later a Texas lawyer met a man by the name John St. Helen. The man had been called as a defense witness in a federal criminal case. The defendant was innocent but St. John couldn’t appear in court because he feared his true identity would be revealed. Depending on lawyer-client privilege St. John all but actually admitted he killed the President.
Records show a John St. Helen performed regularly at an opera house and was an accomplished Shakespearian actor. Known physical characterizes of Booth matched those of St. Helen, even down to walking with a limp and having a deformed right thumb.
He was a bar tender when not acting. It was said he was a total non-drinker except on April 14 each year. On that day he drink himself into a stupor. More than once he supposedly muttered the words “I killed the best man that ever lived.”
In 1877 St. Helen became ill. Both he and his doctor feared he was near death. A story that has been told claimed St. Helen admitted he was Booth and even stated where the murder weapon was buried.
The patient recovered, however. This time he didn’t rely on a doctor’s confidentially oath. St. Helen disappeared as soon as his health allowed.
Flash forward to 1903. A David E. George, a below par house painter was living in the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma.
Severely depressed he took a large quantity of arsenic. His screams brought hotel staff to his room and as St. Helen before, gave a bedside confession. He said he was really Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln.
This time the confessor didn’t recover.
Shortly afterwards a preacher’s wife came forward and said the man known as George earlier thought he was dying and told her the same thing. When he recovered he threatened her to secrecy.
Booth’s age would have been 64, the same or near the same as George.
Among the deceased’s items was a letter addressed to the same lawyer he had used years before. He came to Enid and said George was the same man he knew as St. Helen.
The body was embalmed and put on display at a local funeral home. The medical corner confirming the death reported the deceased had once suffered a broken leg.
Junius B. Booth, a nephew of JWB, also came to Enid. He stated it was his infamous uncle no doubt, but refused to claim the body.
This was left to the lawyer. He did so on payment of embalming fees. The lawyer soon made a profit on his costs.
The story of the mummified corpse of the man who numerous times claimed to be Booth continued. Among future travels included one where it was placed on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair the following year 1904.
Did Booth really escape from that burning barn? It is well known a full-fledged plot was designed by Booth for the assassination. Was he really traced to that barn? Was he alone or was another man with him; a man maybe later identified as Booth?
There is one more item of interest. Remember the Sgt. Corbett who went against orders and was noted for killing Booth?
A tombstone marker in an Enid cemetery reads “Sgt. James “Boston” Corbett”.
Just a coincidence? Maybe… You can decide.
Local history buff, Larry Larkin, is a columnist for the Claremore Progress.